DYYAD, PLEIADES AND LWB's INTERVENTION TO THE BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT
The NGOs Hellenic Action for Human Rights "Pleiades" (2009) and the Lawyers Without Borders (1995, Greece), as well as their joint project "Network for the Support of Human Rights Defenders (DYYAD)" along with more than 70 Bulgarian and 40 foreign and international NGOs, have expressed their support for the biggest human rights organization in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, after one of the parties in the ruling coalition in Bulgaria, VMRO-BND, asked the Prosecutor General of Bulgaria to initiate proceedings for de-registration, i.e. prohibition of the organization.
The arguments of VMRO-BND are that BHC provides submissions to the courts, that it organizes seminars and other educational events with prosecutors and judges and that it represents clients in the European Court of Human Rights and before domestic courts. This, in their view, is an “interference with the judiciary” (!) contrary to Article 117 of the Constitution, which provides that the judicial power is independent.
In October 2017, the party VMRO wrote to the Prosecutor General to initiate prosecution against the Chairperson of BHC Mr. Krassimir Kanev personally for “sabotage” (“вредительство” in Russian). In 2014, the same party wrote to the National Revenue Agency to initiate an investigation. Although none of these actions achieved any of their aims, they constitute intimidation and harassment and cause a lot of stress to BHC's staff and to its membership. This is particularly the case now that VMRO is part of the government.
As an act of solidarity many of BHC’s partners and friends in the NGO sector came forward with statements of support and demands to the Bulgarian government to protect the freedom of expression and ensure that the organization can carry out its legitimate and important human rights work without interference, intimidation and harassment.
“This is an unprecedented attempt to silence independent and critical voices by the authorities in Bulgaria. As a member of the European Union, Bulgaria has a responsibility to uphold the rule of law, and we expect the Prosecutor General to firmly reject the request for dissolution. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee is the most respected human rights organisation in Bulgaria. Their work providing capacity-building for judges and prosecutors and legal services to people in need is crucial. Attempts to deregister them for their work are a direct assault on freedom of expression.”, said Amnesty International’s Europe Deputy Director Massimo Moratti in a statement.
“The developments described above are of particular concern in a country where intolerance is on the rise, and where the safety of those who work for the protection of minorities and the most vulnerable groups of the population can no longer be taken for granted. We deplore the VMRO’s actions and call on the Bulgarian government to abide by its international obligations with respect to freedom of association and other fundamental freedoms by immediately putting an end to the threats facing the BHC and ensuring the safety and operating capacity of the organization and its representatives.”, states a civil society coalition of over 40 foreign NGOs, published in the Civil Solidarity Platform.
In another statement signed by 72 Bulgarian organizations, VMRO-BND's act is condemned as harmful to the civil society by inserting distrust towards the NGO sector for political gain.
At the same time, one of BHC's beneficiaries, the imprisonned Human Rights Defender Mr. Jock
Palfreeman, remains detained despite having been in theory "released on parole" on September 19 and provided with a new Australian passport, so that he could return to his country of origin.
According to DYYAD's information, some local politicians have slammed the parole ruling and even called for violence against the judges that granted it.
In response, almost 300 judges across the country sensationally called on Bulgarian citizens to defend the rule of law against political interference.
"Jock has been given parole by three senior judges in the Supreme Court of Appeals. Yet, the Bulgarian authorities have illegally detained Jock and made an unprecedented attack on the judiciary to try and reverse the decision. It is a clear breach of Jock's human rights.", Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she was "deeply disappointed" Palfreeman was still being held in Bulgaria. "I am concerned ... that there may be a range of non-legal considerations ... that are influencing this matter, and I want to be sure that the law is being applied consistently," Ms Payne told ABC Radio on Wednesday. "I am strongly of the view that he should be treated in accordance with Bulgarian law and that he be allowed to return to Australia immediately."
DYYAD notices the polarization between civil society and State actors, and expresses its great concerns about the current situation and victimization of the BHC and the imprisonned HRD J.Palfreeman, spokesperson of the Bulgarian Prisoners' Association. The BHC, the BPA, Mr. Kanev, Mr.Palfreeman and the associations' crew and supporters are Human Rights Defenders.
Human Rights Defenders acting in the Council of Europe are afforded special protection.
DYYAD calls for international observance of the judicial procedure's integrity and of the alignment of the Bulgarian State with its obligations under the UN Declaration for Human Rights Defenders, in order for impartiality and respect to fundamental rights to be safeguarded, as well as for further victimization of defenders to be prevented.
DYYAD reminds that universal human rights standards need to be valued and upheld by the Bulgarian Government and by all stakeholders, and urges the Bulgarian Government to, in the light of the recent events, urgently proceed to taking note of the recent CoE's Human Rights Commissioner's Recommendations and refrain from further undermining the protection of human rights and democratic norms, while urgently ensuring conformity with the guarantees for defenders and safeguarding their life, integrity and honor from any interference that is contrary to internationally upheld human rights standards.
DYYAD urges Bulgarian authorities to:
i -1. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of Mr. Krassimir Kanev, of the BHC crew, as well as of all human rights defenders in Bulgaria;
i -2. Release the imprisonned human rights defender Mr. Jock Palfreeman, while guaranteeing in all circumstances his physical and psychological integrity.
ii. Order a thorough, impartial and transparent investigation into the harassment suffered by the Organization and its members, in order to identify all those responsible, bring them before a competent and impartial tribunal and apply to them the sanctions provided by the law;
iii. Put an end to any act of harassment against all human rights defenders in Bulgaria, and ensure in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance;
iv. Conform with the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted on December 9, 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly, especially:
- Article 1, which states that “everyone has the right, individually or in association with others, to promote the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels”,
- and Article 12.2 which provides that “the State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration”;
v. Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by Bulgaria.
DYYAD offers its members' expertise to the assistance of the harassed defenders.